“Africa your silence is loud! Speak out against patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia.”
So reads one of the many sloganed T-shirts worn by LGBTI rights protestors at the “Say No to Hate Crimes” picket at the Library Gardens yesterday. Other’s read: “My Sexuality, My Choice”, “Phansi Holomisa!” and “Zuma – your silence is killing our brothers.”
The gardens are decorated with bright pink hard hats and gay rainbow flags. The turnout is large and vocal and though there is an air of joy in the atmosphere – it is that defiant joy that manifests from a sense of solidarity, empowerment, anger, will and, of course, hope. Hope that maybe, just maybe, things will change for the LGBTI community in South Africa if these protests happen frequently and loudly and other organisations join them in solidarity.
This is a human rights issue. It is a social issue. It is a feminist issue. Yet, with the exception of the Democratic Left Front and Keep Left, the lack of presence from almost all other civil society organisations that are not linked to the LGBTI sector, was transparent.
The protest was called on Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday as part of the 67 minutes Mandela Day global campaign. It provides the ideal platform to demonstrate against the ongoing scourge of hate crimes towards the LGBTI community in South Africa. In addition, it was the ideal platform to demand government action against the hate crimes endured by the LGBTI community.
This is also a cry for help, recognition and a safe world for non-straight people.
Just recently two lesbians were kissing each other goodbye at the Carlton Centre in downtown Johannesburg. The guards told them they would never enter heaven because of the way they are. They were jeering at the couple. One of the women went over and asked them to explain themselves. She was brutally assaulted as the guards threw her out of the building. She has a heart condition and landed up in hospital.
Just this week a press statement released by Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) and Gay Flag of South Africa, confirmed the murders of Thapelo Makhutle, a 24-year-old gay/trans individual who was mutilated and murdered in the Northern Cape; Neil Daniels, who was stabbed and set alight in Cape Town; 22-year-old Phumeza Nkolonzi from Nyanga, Cape Town, who was shot three times by a man who burst into her home; the killing of 28-year-old Sanna Supa in Braamficherville, Soweto; and the stabbing to death of 29-year-old Hendrietta Thapelo Morifi (Andritha) in Mokopane, Limpopo.
The silence from the mainstream is deafening. The silence from trade unions is deafening. The silence from the media is deafening. The silence from general civil society is deafening. But mostly the silence from the ANC is deafening.
In fact, it would seem that they are completely ignoring the issue of homophobic violence. The constitutional right to safety for all marginalised groups is not being enforced at all. And when the only response from government is to “distance itself” from to the homophobic utterances of tribal patriarch Patekile Holomisa, who recently actively campaigned for an end to sexual orientation protection in the Constitution, then the work done to end this violence is thwarted.
“Holomisa was not publicly reprimanded by the ANC and in fact continues to perform his duties as an ANC MP. This is completely unacceptable while he has uttered statements that are supposedly contrary to what the ANC claims to be standing for," says Phindi Malaza of FEW, one of the cluster of organisations that came together to organise the march.
I ask her what she thinks prompted the recent spate of violent crimes. “These happened right after Patekile Holomisa’s homophobic utterances. There seems to be a link. Especially since the two women who were killed were assassinated. They did not have anything stolen. They were gunned down in their own homes,” she responds.
“This picket is about addressing the silence from our government. We hear them raising so many other issues, but they are not addressing the violence targeted at les bian women. In this environment, those statements made by Contralesa are highly problematic and the ruling party not calling them to order could in fact, be interpreted as inciting these crimes. This is a human rights issue. It must be seen as that.”
To make matters worse, there seems to be a deliberate move to further sideline LGBTI issues in the public sphere.
The press release issued by FEW and Gay Flag of South Africa poses an important question: "The ANC emerged from its policy conference silent on LGBTI issues, and their gender policy excludes sexual orientation. Is this deliberate?” It also slams President Jacob Zuma and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega for being "silent on these matters", while commending former president, Nelson Mandela for being a leader that recognised the rights of LGBTI people.
Back at the picket, FEW volunteer, Virginia Setshedi, is whipping up the crowds passion as she draws the parallels between human rights and hate crimes. The crowd roars in response. She tells them that they were asked to stay in the park – but they will not. “Whoever wants to join us on the streets may do so. We are going where they told us we cannot go.” The marshals lead the way and surprisingly the entire demonstration joins the forbidden procession onto the main road. The crowd is defiant. They have a point to make and they intend it to be heard.
I am running alongside with my camera. The energy is high, the intent powerful. The police are not quite sure what to do. They were not expecting this. The fervour is escalating. My heart is pounding with the pleasure of this show of strength. I am jostling for space with the many independent journalists at the march. I see no SABC signs. I hear a woman say, “eTV is here,” but most of us at the protest are media activists.
Finally, half way round the block, Mandla Dlamini, ANC elections manager, agrees to meet the organisers and is handed the memorandum of demands. A crescendo of voices rings in protest songs that speak their truth. It is a truth that must be heard. It must be. We cannot sit back passively while innocents are slaughtered because they do not fit into the narrow framework of a heteronormative patriarchal system. We cannot accept this lack of action from the government.
And if we do, their blood is on our hands too.